Nhek Bun Chhay, president of the Khmer National United Party and former commander of Cambodia’s military under the royalist-led government of the 1990s, was stripped of his role as an adviser to the government and forced to surrender his firearms because he was “no longer loyal”, Defence Minister Tea Banh said yesterday.
Bun Chhay, a former member of the royalist Funcinpec party who split away to begin the KNUP last year, was removed as a government adviser – a position with a rank equal to deputy prime minister – on June 4, according to a royal decree requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The decree, signed by King Norodom Sihamoni, came on the same day that Bun Chhay’s party secured a surprise, albeit small, victory in last week’s commune elections, becoming the only party other than the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to win a commune chief position.
The defence minister’s comments appeared to be a veiled reference to rumours that Bun Chhay had made overtures to the CNRP about a merger, rumours Bun Chhay and other KNUP party members have dismissed.
However, speaking by phone, Banh declined to elaborate while playing down the decision to strip Bun Chhay’s title and have his weapons turned in.
“Because his position in the government has been removed, therefore his weapons and bodyguards must be transferred to their unit,” Banh said. “Just know that he is not loyal to the government, and we know he has somewhere else to go … The government knows who is loyal and who is not.”
Bun Chhay was appointed as a government adviser following the 2013 national elections, in which Funcinpec failed to win any seats.
Before that, he held the title of deputy prime minister and had previously led the military under the royalist-CPP coalition government, before Funcipec was ousted by the latter in factional fighting 20 years ago.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia on Wednesday Bun Chhay dismissed the rumours of a merger with the CNRP as “confusion”.
“I have elaborated to [Hun Sen] long ago, and there is no such thing … There was a little confusion, but now I have elaborated properly and there is no such problem,” he told RFA.
The former commander has been unreachable since news broke on Friday of his title being scrapped. On Friday, a man at Bun Chhay’s home, who claimed to be his assistant but declined to give his name, said Bun Chhay had left for Thailand.
However, speaking yesterday Da Chhean, the commune chief-elect for Banteay Meanchey’s Thma Puok, where the KNUP secured its only win, said he had been told by the party’s provincial branch that their leader remained in Phnom Penh.
He said he was unaware what was behind the removal of his title, but rejected any notion Bun Chhay planned to cooperate with the CNRP.
“This information is not true. I would like to absolutely and completely deny that he is involved with the Cambodia National Rescue Party because he has never raised or mentioned them once,” Chhean said.
Reached yesterday, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said he had no knowledge of any contact between the party and Bun Chhay or members of the KNUP. “For me, as the party spokesman, I do not know,” he said.
Tum Sambo, a former Funcinpec member who defected to the KNUP and acted as the party’s spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of Bun Chhay’s whereabouts, having resigned two days ago because he hadn’t been paid since the group was formed.
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton